Nov. 10, 2020

Real-world impact of novel geophysical research partnership recognized

University of Calgary and University of Alberta co-founders of Microseismic Industry Consortium receive national award

For more than a decade, a collaborative university-industry research consortium co-founded by University of Calgary geophysics professor Dr. David Eaton, PhD, has helped companies develop unconventional hydrocarbons more efficiently.

More recently, the Microseismic Industry Consortium’s (MIC) work has informed and helped guide government energy regulation, strengthening the safety and effectiveness of enhanced oil and natural gas recovery.

Eaton, physics professor Dr. Mirko van der Baan, PhD, at the University of Alberta, and the novel research consortium they co-founded have received a prestigious Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Synergy Award for Innovation. The awards recognize outstanding examples of collaboration that stand as models of effective partnership between industry and universities or colleges.

“The MIC brings together unique, multidisciplinary strengths at both universities,” says Eaton, who has held the NSERC/Chevron Industrial Chair in Microseismic System Dynamics in the Department of Geoscience within the Faculty of Science. “We’ve succeeded in navigating a path between fundamental and applied research, realizing a high degree of synergy between them.”

Founded in January 2010, the MIC is dedicated to advancing research, education and technological innovations in microseismic data acquisition, processing and interpretation and their practical applications to resource development.

Industry partners in the MIC have been able to optimize unconventional hydrocarbons extraction techniques and geological reservoir development using the knowledge generated by the consortium.

Microseismic technology is important for monitoring fracture processes in underground rock formations, including during hydraulic fracturing operations to extract hydrocarbons from “tight” reservoirs with low permeability.

The MIC has transformed the way scientists, energy industry leaders and policy-makers understand microseismic events associated with unconventional oil and gas production.

The consortium’s world-class work in understanding the mechanisms of hydraulic fracturing “induced seismicity,” including earthquakes felt at the surface, has significantly impacted regulatory policy in North America. This includes industry-government-academic collaboration to refine “traffic-light” systems used to monitor and mitigate hydraulic fracturing operations.

“We’ve been able to forge a strong relationship with government and regulators as well as industry,” Eaton says.

Since 2010, an average of 20 companies a year have participated in the MIC, contributing more than $4.5 million in cash and an estimated $3.5 million in other resources such as assistance in deploying field equipment. Industry partners have included Canadian and international firms.

“This sustained support has occurred in part because we’re working on problems, such as induced seismicity, that companies recognize is a collective challenge for the industry,” Eaton says.

For example, a pioneering field project west of Fox Creek, Alta., called ToC2ME (Tony Creek Dual Microseismic Experiment, pronounced “talk to me”), used a diverse combination of sensors to produce a multi-component dataset on induced seismicity in a critical area in 2016. The project, embedded within Eaton’s NSERC/Chevron Industry Research Chair, led to a series of student degrees, several scientific publications and global interest.

“The ToC2ME project never would have happened had it not been for the capacity and wherewithal of the Microseismic Industry Consortium,” says Eaton.

Impact encompasses training students, research publications, intellectual property

Unlike most geophysical research groups that are provided with seismic data, the MIC acquires its own data through ambitious field programs.

This means students are involved from the beginning, conceptualizing a project through to implementing it, gathering the data, and analyzing and interpreting the results.

Eaton and van der Baan have trained more than 100 highly qualified personnel within the MIC, from undergraduate to postdoctoral levels. This includes seven students who received enhanced training through the NSERC-CREATE Program in Responsible Development of Low-Permeability Hydrocarbon Reserves, led by Eaton.

The MIC’s research has produced more than 300 scientific publications. In addition, innovative research within the consortium has led to development of new intellectual property and technologies. This includes new software for processing downhole microseismic data, a software “toolbox,” and a custom-built, real-time seismic imaging solution.

“Receiving this prestigious innovation award is a tremendous accomplishment for MIC," says Dr. Bernhard Mayer, interim dean, Faculty of Science. "We are so proud of Dr. Eaton for the innovative research contributions he makes as he works across disciplines, industry and academia to better understand the collective challenges of the oil and gas industry."

At UCalgary, Eaton serves as the scientific lead for “tight” oil and gas within the university’s $75-million Global Research Initiative in Sustainable Low Carbon Unconventional Resources.

The NSERC Synergy Award, for which 10 of the MIC’s industry partners provided nomination letters of support, comes with a $200,000 cash prize which the two universities shared. Eaton has used the money to support innovative new research programs.

“David Eaton and the MIC exemplify a collaborative, innovative spirit that is paramount in industry-partnered research,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “Their shared drive to refine practices and policies, backed by cutting-edge research, has led to tremendous advances. We are thrilled that NSERC has selected them for this prestigious honour.

“I’m proud that we’ve received this recognition, which truly resonates with the companies we’re working with,” he says. “The students in the MIC have also taken a lot of pride in the Synergy Award, which has been a source of motivation to excel in their research.”

Along with watching students mature, develop their own ideas and progress in their career, Eaton says his greatest satisfaction from the MIC is “the thrill of discovering new things. It’s putting the pieces together and recognizing that we’re onto significant and new phenomena.”

Earlier this year, Eaton received the 2020 J. Tuzo Wilson Medal from the Canadian Geophysical Union, recognizing a scientist who has made outstanding, career-long contributions to the geophysical sciences in Canada.